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Let's Bring More Students to the Awards Table

Stephen Hurley

Grade Eight Teacher, Group Moderator, Facilitator/teacher arts@newman
Related Tags: Assessment, 6-8 Middle School
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A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting on the stage at our school's eighth-grade graduation ceremony. I was reflecting on the two years I have had with these students, and how we set out together to do something different with our time in this place we call school. Much of what I was feeling was positive and hopeful.

Hopeful, that is, until the master of ceremonies for the evening came to the podium and announced, "And now, the moment you've all been waiting for: It is now time to recognize the efforts and achievements of our students through the awards segment of our celebration."

For me, this was the moment I had been dreading all evening, the moment I lost sleep over, and the moment on which I fixated during the formal lunch and dance we had enjoyed earlier in the day. Like many awards ceremonies taking place in many school districts across the continent, ours focused on and raised to an obvious level of honor and prestige a narrow band of academic achievement across specific disciplines.

Now, I'm not in any way suggesting that academic development is unimportant, or that success in discipline-based thinking should not be celebrated. It's just that for the past two years, working with a group of 12- and 13-year-olds, we began to explore how our experience of school could be transformed by focusing on things like collaborative and cooperative interactions, critical thinking, creativity, and alternative forms of communication.

By recognizing visual arts, drama, dance, music, and media arts as legitimate forms of literacy, we have begun to combine traditional, discipline-based boundaries and explore questions, ideas, and problems that are at the core of living in the 21st century.

And yet, at the end of the day, those that were honored at our eighth-grade graduation ceremony were those students who received the highest individual marks in each of the traditional academic subject areas.

I realize that traditional schooling practices are often so firmly entrenched in our collective minds that they often become habits that remain, to a large extent, unquestioned. On our staff, for example, discussions around awards tend to concentrate on who is going to win the honors in each eighth-grade class and which teacher will be responsible for getting the plaque engraving done.

I also realize that the change in thinking necessary to inspire a change in practice requires a movement of the critical mass -- and that is always slow. But I'm beginning to frame some questions and ideas so my September conversations with my colleagues might help us move the conversation forward.

Here are my main contentions: First, the traditional honors and kudos that are part of our end-of-the-year awards ceremonies tend to be disconnected with the set of skills, attitudes, and achievements we hold to be important for the 21st century.

Second, if we really want to promote things like collaborative team work, risk taking, ongoing learning, creativity, and critical problem solving, and if we really want our student and parent communities to begin to take these seriously, we need to make sure these goals are provided with honored places at our awards tables. In my own local district, I don't see this happening in any serious way.

Let me get the wheels turning a little with a few possibilities: I can imagine, for example, an award given to the team of students who designed a creative and effective solution to a community-based problem.

What about an award that recognized a students' ability (and willingness) to consistently see situations or problems from another perspective? Here's a provocative one: an award that calls to the podium the student willing to risk short-term academic achievement for long-term learning.

There are countless possibilities that could emerge from serious discussion about our current practice around awards.

Perhaps I don't have to wait until September to get the conversation going! Perhaps you have been doing some parallel thinking. You may agree or disagree with what I've said. Maybe your school has already started down this path. What have the results been like? Finally, you may have ideas for new award categories. Let's run with the idea and see where it takes us!

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Stephen Hurley

Grade Eight Teacher, Group Moderator, Facilitator/teacher arts@newman

Comments (15) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Ginny Riga's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Montessori education honors every student for his/her uniqueness. In public Montessori classrooms student work is assessed quantitatively (by state exams, benchmark testing, spelling checks/tests),however, report cards do do have letter grades - even thorugh middle school level. When children's work is honored everyday, there's no need for honor roll assemblies.

I think the author makes a great point - perhaps using Montessori education as a model may be a helpful starting point.

Ginny Riga
SC Dept. of Education, Montessori programs
Columbia, SC 29201

Heather Wolpert - Gawron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I absolutely agree! At my school we have the typical academic awards, and there are the additional can't-be-on-honor-roll-list-but-works-really-hard awards. There are the citizenship awards and so on. With more elective class and club buy-in (worthy of its own discussion, wouldn't you agree?) we could expand the possible awards considerably. Great post and thoughts to chew on.
Thanks for the food for thought.
-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Stephen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Heather,

Thanks for jumping in on this one! I guess one of the important things for me is not to diminish the value of academic achievement. After all, it is one of the pillars on which our school system is based. I don't know about you, but I always got the impression that the "other awards" that you mention can be a little patronizing. They don't have to be, but I know students don't see them in the same way that they see the "main event" awards.


Stephen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Ginny,

Thanks for the response. A question of clarification. Did you say that report cards DO have letter grades?

I agree that the true spirit of Montessori as well as other approaches to schooling can inform this type of discussion a great deal.


Stephen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for your contribution to the discussion Mr. Peternel!

I think that its important that, in trying the raise the value of "non-academic" skills and habits of mind, we don't diminish the value of academic excellence. That is not my intention.

A comment about effort and marks. I remember when I first started in this profession, the mark that a student earned for a particular subject reflected performance on tests, quizzes, assignments, etc, as well as effort and participation. In our current system up here in Ontario, we are required to separate effort, participation and attitude assessments, so that the subject marks only reflect understanding based on the curriculum expectations. That's another whole discussion, I know, but I thought that I would throw it out there in response to your idea.

I agree that some good tools for assessment of things like intellectual curiosity will be necessary if we are going to hope to move forward.


Stephen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Kirsten,

Thanks for your passionate response. I think that you point out the "integrity problem" that our schools face today. What we say and what we do are often disconnected on a number of levels. We're making great headway in recognizing the need to address the whole child; I'm hoping that it won't take years and years before we see some real change in the way that we recognize achievement and success.

A quick story that I didn't include in my original post. Jake was a student in my grade eight class this year, and he began asking me in late April whether or not he would be receiving an award at the graduation ceremony. I told him that none of that had been decided yet, but he continued to ask every day. Jake worked so hard in the third term, especially in math, but he didn't come close in terms of marks to the student who won the award for mathematics. Jake, however, did receive an award for being the most improved student. As he walked across the stage to receive his award, I could tell that this was not the type of honor for which he was looking. Jake, like so many other students, has learned to equate school success with something other than passionate engagement, enjoyment of learning and ongoing improvement.

I look forward to reading your book, Wounded by School.


Stephen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

HI Cynthia,

Thanks for participating in the conversation. Reading your comments forced me to think about that important question that we tend to play with a little, and then it seems to fade from our view in favor of other issues: What does it mean to be a successful student. I think that your post challenges some of our thinking on that question.


Sharon Kochanowski's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for putting this out there for discussion. Unfortunately, testing has made many look at numbers and not at children. Teaching at a school where even small gains can be mountains compared to others, I'm all about recognizing those students who put forth their best effort, share themselves with others who are struggling, or offer awesome ideas for learning. Let's hope those in Washington hear this discussion!!

Nancy Schultz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I just happened upom this discussion at the same time I was having it with my middle school principal. She did away with "Student of the Month" because of the conflict and elitism it produced. We were discussing honor roll and high honor roll and the problems connected with it (usually by parents). We were trying to develop a program to celebrate the positives of our students without creating (or contributing to) haves and haves-not. We are still "mulling" yhis over. Thank you for this discussion- it is an important one.

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